SALT LAKE CITY — When author Graeme Simsion first sat down to write his future bestseller “The Rosie Project,” he had no intention of writing an autistic main character.
More than a decade later, he’s coming out with the third book in the series, “The Rosie Result” (Text Publishing, 384 pages), with a story that centers around autism. Simsion will visit The King's English book shop in Salt Lake on Wednesday.
Simsion, who resides with his wife in Australia, said his colleagues from his former career in information technology inspired the idea for “The Rosie Project.” One co-worker in particular had a “wife project” the same way Simsion’s main character, Don Tillman, does — he had a long questionnaire for prospective women, attended lots of singles events, and was deliberate about meeting somebody.
But, as far as Simsion knows, this co-worker was never diagnosed as autistic. Simsion said he’d been around a lot of guys like Don as he’d joined the radio club and studied physics in school.
“They were just geeks,” he said, and had no more clinical label applied to them.
Since “The Rosie Project” was published in 2013, the conversation around autism has changed dramatically, Simsion said. For one thing, Asperger's syndrome has been absorbed into the broader spectrum of autism. For another, social media, especially Twitter, has become a platform for autism activists to come together and make the world more aware of their experiences.
"It's a good way for people on the spectrum to communicate in writing rather than having to worry about body language," Simsion said. "They have become a really powerful minority group."
And so, Simsion has in recent years come to see that Don in fact would be considered autistic, and he brought that issue forward in "The Rosie Result," especially in dealing with Don's 11-year-old son, Hudson.
When Don's family makes the move from the United States to Australia, Hudson struggles to cope with the transition. In fact, his school calls and suggests they should look into diagnosing him as autistic. Don then launches the "Hudson Project" to determine if he can help his son learn to fit in and decide if they should look into treating his behaviors. But if Hudson is autistic, is that something to treat or something to accept?
Simsion said he was really worried about writing about an 11-year-old in "The Rosie Result." His kids are grown up, so he's "at that awkward age where you don't hang out with 11-year-olds." To make it easier, he decided to base Hudson on himself at that age, though Simsion himself doesn't identify as autistic.
"It was quite confronting, because I don't (usually) consciously put myself into characters," he said. "It was challenging because I had to revisit my past."
Prior to writing "The Rosie Result," Simsion had been invited to write a personal essay on a defining moment in his life for an anthology titled "Split." Simsion decided to write about when he moved from New Zealand to Australia when he was 11.
"It was only a 6,000-word essay, but it killed me," he said. "It was more work than writing the whole book."
In the end, his essay, called "Rewiring," was the therapy Simsion had to work through in order to write Hudson, without having that heavy stuff on the pages of his more light-hearted novel.
The most rewarding part of writing, Simsion said, is always the responses he gets from individual readers. He knows that often the books that change your life are not necessarily the greatest works of literature, but happen to be what you pick up on the day you need them.
"Out of 5 million books out there, sometimes they land in just the right place at the right time," he said.
He's had readers tell him that because of his books, they went out and got an autism diagnosis, or they were better able to understand their spouse through Don's perspective. One woman read it as she was dying so she would feel happy at the end of her life.
"If I had known that when I was writing the book, I couldn't have done it," Simsion said. "I don't write because of that. The reason I write is I want to tell a story."
But, in the end, knowing he made a difference to his readers makes it all worth it.
He hopes that all readers will walk away from his book seeing that, "autism is another legitimate way of being, with its own strengths and weaknesses that we all have. It's a difference, not a disease."
Out of his five-city tour for "The Rosie Result" this June, Simsion made sure to stop at "The King's English" in Salt Lake City because, he said, it's his "favorite bookstore in the whole world." His first visit there in 2013 was in December, and the picturesque snow outside combined with the warmth and the packed crowd inside the little store left him with pleasant memories.
"It was the best time and the best event," he said. "I will always go back to Salt Lake City."
If you go …
What: Graeme Simsion book signing
When: Wednesday, June 5, 7 p.m.
Where: The King’s English, 1511 S. 1500 East
Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of the featured book from The King’s English.